'Dark Knight' buzz keeps building

Heath Ledger gets multiple ovations at N.Y. premiere

NEW YORK -- Warner Bros. took the wraps off what is arguably its biggest movie of the year Monday, unveiling "The Dark Knight" in a splashy Manhattan premiere.

The event -- which shut down a block of Broadway as media and gawkers crowded a busily trafficked street to glimpse the likes of Christian Bale and Morgan Freeman -- featured an opening performance that was as much sound-and-light show as premiere. Composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer played a piece of the score accompanied by an elaborate lighting number with a Bat Signal as its centerpiece.

The Imax screening was the first large-scale presentation of the film, which the studio will roll out to a screening-packed schedule this weekend.

But for all the pyrotechnics, the event also had another potential purpose: as a quiet, backdoor test of the movie's awards potential, especially for Heath Ledger and his performance as archvillain the Joker.

Studio execs, who congregated with a kind of nervous energy in the top-floor lobby of the Sony Lincoln Square, may have gotten what they had hoped for: There were several small midscreening ovations for Ledger.

Ledger's presence could be felt amid the festive mood of the afterparty, as Warners execs said they were trying to strike a balance between celebration and commemoration.

"Obviously it's a bittersweet night because everyone agrees Heath's performance is stunning, and I'm truly sorry he's not here to share it with us," said Warners topper Alan Horn. "But I don't necessarily want to weigh this down with that. Tonight is about Chris Nolan's multiple-year vision and about Christian Bale, who did a fabulous job."

Ledger's parents were also present at the fete, and several execs noted in interviews that they had spoken to them to gauge their mood.

The screening reaction of both the media and the industry proved not just a test of the movie's drawing power -- it's already expected to challenge for the biggest opening in history -- but whether it could gain traction as an awards contender. Summer tentpoles generally have been passed over by the Academy for all but technical awards for the past several years.

In some ways the event resembled another Warners premiere of several years ago: the debut of Martin Scorsese's "The Departed." Like "Knight," the movie also had a buzzy New York premiere that was meant as a precursor to a big opening but which quietly set the stage for a successful awards run.

The mainly insider audience also provided some focus-group info of sorts when it murmured excitedly at the first of many Imax-enhanced overhead shots.

The movie has ridden an unusually high wave of both critical and fan buzz, and producers were trying to manage expectations even as they reveled in them.

Said Legendary Pictures principal and financier/producer Thomas Tull: "I'd be lying if I said I didn't get excited about all the feedback we're getting."